Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Simple Planning Techniques

Engaging the Grey Matter
Monkey puzzle in the wrong place
      An old rant of mine concentrates on the lack of creative thought that goes into a lot of gardens; Most people spend much time looking at the way the living room is set out, giving careful consideration to the ease of viewing the telly (for many years now the usurper of the fireplace as the main focal point of the room), the way the curtains match the carpet, the placing of pictures and so on. Then they get to the garden and this suddenly becomes the territory of the expert, with the average Joe thinking of himself as out of his depth because he doesn't know any Latin names (don't worry, Mr Gove will put it back in the National Curriculum) and relapsing into the 'see what next door's done with it' method. This leads to a monotonous continuity of square front lawns. These are surrounded by beds occupied by black-spot infested roses subtended by the occasional bedding plant and a lot of bare soil which may as well have a sign up saying 'vacancies - weeds welcome'.

      My point is that many elements of planning the garden are exactly the same as planning inside the house. It comes down to common sense: if we want plants for winter interest they are best enjoyed when positioned in full view of the house because weather often keeps us in at that time of year; if we leave areas of bare earth in the beds, weeds are going to move in; a graceful curve to the edge of the beds is more satisfying than the neighbour's straight edges; a thoughtfully placed tree or shrub can hide an eyesore. See? - it's not rocket science, is it? Any fool can manage the basics, with results that encourage further exploration.
Leyland cypress can get out of hand
      Avoiding pitfalls is often easier than you think ('think' being the operative word). It may seem a good idea to put a monkey puzzle tree in your ten foot front garden but THINK! it's a tree and, guess what, trees get big. That particular one can get to 80ft. high, with a spread of 30ft. The only possible justifications for planting it in such a daft place are a. you are so old you will snuff it before the living room goes dark or b.you intend to sell the house (preferably to someone you don't like) before that eventuality. THINK before you plant a leyland cypress hedge - they are excellent for that function but, at the end of the day, they are trees and will need regular clipping. The plant gets a bad press but it's the silly bugger who plants it then goes away who really deserves it. On the other hand, it pays to be aware that you can be too enthusiastic about cutting back a hedge of this sort: it won't regenerate from old wood, so if you go too far, you end up losing any privacy it provided, create brown, unattractive patches, or, more extremely, killing it. The answer is to prune it little and often. If that's going to take up too much time, plant something slower growing, like box or holly.
Narrowing grass walkway at Hidcote
      There are techniques for making an area look bigger than it is: I was at Hidcote Manor a couple of weeks ago and here a  grass sward between an avenue of trees has been made to look more impressive by planting the trees gradually closer together towards one end, creating the illusion of distance. The effect can be improved further by employing dwarves to walk around at the far end. If you don't happen to have a manor, you can replicate the idea by making your borders wider at one end of the garden than at the other. Curving the edges, replacing the common, boring, straight line, gives the eye further to travel and the  simple practise of planting stronger colours close to the main viewing point, and more pastely shades further away adds to this effect. Taking chunks out of an existing lawn in order to create curves can seem a bit daunting at first. The job can be messed up by making them too small so that, when you stand back, they are over- busy, resembling the serrations of a knife edge. To get round this, lay a hosepipe or washing line where you are going to remove the turf, then step to the end of the garden to check the foreshortening effect. Keep adjusting this till you are happy, then spade out the scallops secure in the knowledge that it'll look right. I would suggest that blokes don't mention the washing line bit to their wives - I found they can be touchy about such things.

      Another simple thing you can do is create secrets in the garden. A site where you can see every feature from one point is usually pretty boring. If you create a bed which curves out of sight, perhaps behind a shrub or tree, a viewer will be tempted to step out into the garden just to see what's out of sight. It doesn't matter if there's a brick lavatory there  - the object will have been achieved and the garden will be more interesting.

      Come to think of it, with the state of my bladder, a lavatory wouldn't be a bad idea.



Saturday, 7 June 2014

Viburnum Beetle

Making Life Easier
Psychological approach?
      I've come to the conclusion that the apparently peaceful pastime of gardening is actually do-it-yourself warfare: the more we try to control nature, the more bloody minded it gets and the greater the need for creative thinking:

      We recently spent a few days at Stratford Upon Avon and I made what is becoming a habitual visit to Hidcote Manor gardens. As usual, the gardens impressed but something which caught my eye was an area signed 'The Poppy Border'. As a gardener plagued with the pretty but uncontrollable Welsh poppy, I recognised this as a masterpiece of adaptation - the psychological approach to a problem using the 'if you can't beat the buggers, join 'em' technique. I've been thinking of employing the same strategy by creating 'The Dandelion Border', 'The Willow-herb Bed' and maybe even 'The Marestail Bank'. This would be achieved with a complete lack of effort on my part except for the making of the signs. However, gardening being what it is, I can almost guarantee that the dandelions would suddenly and inexplicably be over-run by Dahlias, the willow-herbs by Phlox and, for the first time in history, the marestail would inexplicably disappear.

      If the Hidcote gardeners were allowed to sit back with satisfied smiles, it wasn't for long because the enemy was advancing along another front: I was trying to identify a large and, I thought, exotic shrub with amazing lacy leaves when it became apparent that it was simply the common Viburnum opulus. The Viburnum beetle had reduced the foliage to a tracery of veins and, when I looked closer, I could make out the tiny caterpillar-like larvae wreaking their havoc. When I listened carefully, I swear I heard munching.
Viburnum beetle damage
Viburnum beetle larva
      The larvae feed in late spring (mid April to early May) and that's the time to zap them. Pyrethrum is the best organic spray, although the adults, which turn up to feed later in summer, are most effectively controlled using something like Bayer Sprayday Greenfly Killer. However, in my experience, it isn't easy to spot the adults and, as the main damage is already done by the time they turn up, early application of Pyrethrum is the best bet.
Hosta sieboldiana - off the menu?
      The chemical approach to a lot of pest problems brings to mind the open stable door and lack of horse scenario and it's much easier to grow plants which have a natural resistance to the main enemies: a big problem with gooseberries is American mildew and varieties like Invicta, Jubilee and Pax (among others) are fairly impervious to its ravages. Similarly there are blight resistant potatoes, club root resistant cabbages and cauliflowers, carrot fly resistant carrots, and many others. Even slug caviar - Hosta, has some varieties which, though not completely immune, seem to be far less palatable than others. Those with blue, thick and puckered leaves fit well into this category.

For more about slug control go to Organic control
For more about carrot fly problems go to Carrot fly problems